Money & Careers

Volunteer Passion No. 5: “Highlights” Tour Guide at the Met



800px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder-_The_Harvesters_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Harvesters, by Pieter Breugel the Elder.

Later in the tour, we stop at Pieter Breugel the Elder’s magnificent The Harvesters, which shows 16th-century peasants in a pastoral landscape—a painting that is a watershed in art history. It’s the first time that landscape itself is the point and not the backdrop for a religious subject. See how Breugel uses color to get your eye to wander around the painting; note especially the white, starting with the peasant’s shirt midway up the pear tree that anchors the scene. Your eye is drawn down through the picnic cloth, lady’s apron, and around the tree–sling-shotting your eye to the path that leads deeper into the landscape, past the great arcs of yellow fields and the blue-green middle distance.

Then you travel up around the hazy horizon and the edge of the sea, the church and graveyard, and down again to the central group of peasants. The circular motion creates constancy in the picture, but you can break off anywhere and wander around in the middle, examining all the other scenes that are still coherent, thanks to his brilliant use of perspective. And all the figures are visually united and inseparable from nature, while the church is a casual part of the scenery behind a tree.

Once there was a mother and a young child in my group. After one or two stops she asked if I was going to show the dinosaurs. She had made a mistake and come to the Met instead of the Museum of Natural History. I told her there’d be no dinosaurs, that they were in another museum on the other side of the park, but “stick with me,” I said, “I’ll show you something really cool from ancient Egypt.”

The Tomb Models of Meketre are a surefire crowd-pleaser. They were discovered by museum excavators in 1920; they had not expected to find anything in this tomb dating from 1996 B.C., for it had been robbed in antiquity and excavated twice. But in an Indiana Jones–like scenario, a workman saw sand escaping through a hole in the floor. A false wall had been built to foil grave robbers, and when they breached it they found carved wooden architectural models, ships, and figures that represented everything that Meketre—the pharaoh’s royal chief steward—would need in the afterlife.

Herbert Winlock, head of the Met’s Egyptian Department, who led the expedition, was so thrilled by the discovery that he later wrote, “at the time of Julius Caesar, these objects were as old to him as Caesar is to us now, yet the fingerprints are fresh upon them.” Indeed, having been hermetically sealed for four thousand years, they were in near–mint condition, and in the exhibit nothing has been retouched or restored. The colors are original, the linens are original, and the figures are all intact. Even the grain in the granary model is original.

I love pointing out a little wooden statuette of a man named Wah, one of Meketre’s most trusted aides. The statuette was placed in his coffin as a fail-safe against the mummy’s disintegrating. In that event, Wah’s spirit would find a home in the statue. See how his linen is gathered up on his chest in a dashing knot, as if he were posing for Egyptian Vogue.

Tour guide at a museum: Nice work if you can get it. [And Jane Lattes, in our first Volunteering post, tells you how to get it.] After 20 years as a guide, it still gives me a charge to see faces light up when I show the artworks I have selected. Not to mention the pleasure I feel in continuing to see more in the works I love. Not to mention the glow I get whenever someone says—as someone recently did—“I could listen to her all day.”

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  • Toni Myers February 3, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Your brilliant description of the objects you have chosen makes me want to hop on a plane, go to the Met, and request you as a tour guide. Thanks.

  • Liz Robbins February 3, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Nora, what a terrific piece. You make the objects come alive.

  • B. Elliott February 3, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Delightful post! Enlightened my morning. The Met is fortunate to have you!